Once again the youth of Iran is on the move. In a week of stormy demonstrations, the students of Teheran and other centres poured onto the streets in protest against the repressive policies of the regime. The crisis began on November 6, when a reactionary judge pronounced the death sentence to Hashem Aghajari, a prominent pro-reform academic, who was found guilty of blasphemy on the basis of a speech he made in the summer.
Aghajari, who is a close ally of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, was sentenced to death by a single judge in a closed courtroom for suggesting in a speech that Muslims should be free to interpret their faith as they wish. He also questioned the authority of the powerful Shiite clergy. The judge said the professor had "insulted Islam". Aghajari had attacked theocratic government, compared the imitative reverence of Shia Muslims for top ayatollahs to the mimicry practised by monkeys, and proposed a Shia version of Europe's Protestant reformation.
A short spell in jail had been expected, but the severity of his sentence provoked an enraged response. The announcement sparked a week of student demonstrations on campuses throughout Iran. The Iranian students immediately took to the streets. Protest demonstrations of up to 2,000-strong were held at universities across the country. Students boycotted classes and mid-term exams. The Workers Left Unity-Iran reported:
"The demonstrations started on Saturday when a group of about 500 students set fire outside the Tehran University campus gates and chanted in unison: "Political prisoners should be released!" and "Our problem is the judiciary!". On Monday 11 of November a rally by around 1,000 students from Tehran's Tarbiat Modarres University was one of many such protests, some 3000 students gathered at Tehran University, 2000 joined protests in Oroumiyeh and the Universities of Hamadan, Kerman, Isfahan and Tabriz held similar gatherings. By Tuesday a boycott of lectures at Tehran university turned into a demonstration on the campus where the students shouted slogans against Khamenei, Iran's supreme clerical leader and the previous president Rafsanjani."
APF described the scenes:
"Thousands of Iranian university students on Monday defied warnings of a crackdown by stepping up their protests with vocal demands for greater freedom of speech. Witnesses said at least 5,000 massed at Tehran's Sharif university campus in a continuation of protests over the sentencing to death for blasphemy of prominent reformist academic Hashem Aghajari. In the face of mounting demonstrations and a chorus of criticism of the verdict, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday ordered the hardline-controlled judiciary to revise the ruling. But a student leader said the supreme leader's intervention did not go far enough in satisfying wider student demands. 'Our problem is not only the revision of the death sentence on Hashem Aghajari, but freedom of speech and freedom in general'" Abdollah Momeni, a leader of the Office to Consolidate Unity (OCU) student group, told the gathering. Students also continued chanting overtly political slogans, including 'Free political prisoners' and 'Death to the Taliban in Kabul and Tehran'. Police were out in force outside the campus and were restricting entry to the university grounds. An AFP reporter at the scene said at least 5,000 students were involved in the protest, while student leaders put the figure at 6-7,000." (AFP Nov 18, my emphasis, AW.)
Thus, a movement that began with a limited scope immediately became filled with a revolutionary content: for the demand for democracy in present-day Iran inevitably has a revolutionary significance.
In addition to the students, hundreds of university professors requested the verdict be overturned, and two-thirds of Iran's parliament members signed a letter asking that the sentence be reversed. President Khatami called the sentence inappropriate and said it should never have been issued. Several of Mr. Aghajari's colleagues at Tehran University resigned in protest.
Reformers versus conservatives
It is clear that the judges' real target was Khatami himself. This new conflict erupted just when President Khatami was trying to gain greater control over the hard-line judiciary and the Council of Guardians, a conservative committee that holds considerable power. They are hoping to intimidate him into withdrawing his support for two bills, now before the Iranian parliament, which threaten the conservatives more directly than at any time since Khatami was first elected, five years ago.
The first bill is aimed at removing the right of the conservative-dominated Council of Guardians to disqualify reformist candidates from office. This right - which the Council has claimed for itself unilaterally - is expected to be exploited in the run-up to the 2004 parliamentary election. The second would grant Khatami powers to act against the conservatives' cavalier disregard for constitutional freedoms.
On paper this looks like decisive action, but in practice it is only shadow-boxing - like all the other activity of Khatami and the "moderate reformers". The reactionary mullahs hold all the real levers of power in their hands. The Council of Guardians, which acts as an upper house, is expected to veto Khatami's bills.
The latest flare-up shows the existence of deep splits in the regime - a sure sign of a developing revolutionary situation. The regime is clearly losing its grip. Ayatollah Khomeini was always able to carry the mass of the people with him. By contrast, the clerical establishment associated with his successor is increasingly isolated. In the past few days, it has been threatened by an alliance composed of students, parliament and President Muhammad Khatami's reformist government. In the old days, when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gave a "recommendation", it was swiftly implemented. But when on November 11, his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged members of the government, judiciary and parliament to put an end to their quarrelling, his recommendation fell on deaf ears.
Matters are leading to a dangerous deadlock. The president, his cabinet and a number of reformist deputies have let it be known that, if the bills are blocked, they will follow Mr Abdi's advice about non-co-operation, and resign. Some political analysts suggest that the widespread student demonstrations are pushing Iran toward a headlong collision between conservatives and reformists. But both sides are anxious to avoid a serious clash. They are well aware that a direct clash between them would have revolutionary repercussions.
The regime is now trapped between a rock and a hard place. It is vacillating between concession and repression. Khamenei has issued a veiled threat to suppress the movement with violence if the insubordination continues. But given the isolation of the regime, which has lost its mass base and is sustained in power only by the temporary inertia of the masses, whatever it does now will be wrong.
Meanwhile, President Mohammad Khatami on Wednesday said that the death sentence, handed to university professor Hashem Aghajari on charge of blasphemy, was an "improper verdict". "This was an improper verdict and I personally do not agree with such confrontations at all," he told reporters after a cabinet session.
The death sentence was only the latest sign of an intensified judicial campaign against the reformers. Abbas Abdi, a leading reformist, was arrested on November 4 and his market-research company was closed. Many suspect that Abdi was arrested because he had expressed the view that reformists in government and parliament could force conservative institutions to make concessions by refusing to co-operate with them.
The threat of non-co-operation worries the conservatives because they fear the struggle would then pass to forces outside parliament. If the situation reaches deadlock in parliament, the battle for power will be fought out on the streets. Khamenei might try to unleash his "popular forces" - that is, the paramilitary thugs who were the main instrument for putting down the demonstrations in 1999. This time, however, the paramilitaries made no serious attempt to break up the student protests. APF reported:
"Angry Tehran university students were back out on campus Wednesday for a fifth straight day of protests over the sentencing to death for blasphemy of a prominent pro-reform academic. Up to 2,500 were seen gathered inside the campus for a series of speeches by student activists and reformist leaders, while police and anti-riot squads kept a discreet eye on the proceedings from streets outside. The atmosphere was largely calm, with both sides apparently keen to avoid a repeat of the events of July 1999, when student protests on the campus degenerated into violent street clashes." (AFP, Nov 13)
The reason for the "discretion" of these thugs is not a sudden conversion to humanitarian values. Even the most obtuse of the mullahs must realise that such an action would be the spark that could ignite a general movement against a hated regime. If Khatami and his government were to resign, the regime would lose any semblance of popular legitimacy. This fact shows the real role of President Khatami, as a fig leaf for the mullahs. Far from threatening the regime, he offers it a bit of protective colouring.
According to the speaker of Iran's "reformist" parliament, Mehdi Karubi last Sunday Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already ordered the judiciary to review the death sentence on professor Hashem Aghajari. This could be the first step to some kind of deal. This is not surprising, since on previous occasions, disputes between conservatives and reformists have usually ended in compromise. This is no accident. As always, the fear on the part of the so-called liberals of the movement of the masses is far greater than their hatred of the regime. Therefore, in the last analysis, they will always seek a deal with the reactionaries that they hope will keep a lid on things.
Mood of anger
The Aghajari sentence, and the latest arrests may well just be bargaining tactics in the same old cat-and-mouse game between liberals and conservatives. The conservatives may be using the idea of commuting Aghajari's sentence as a way of persuading Mr Khatami not to resign. But the President is under increasing pressure from below. He will not find it easy to back down. If he does reach a rotten compromise with the mullahs this time he will lose a lot of support and credibility. The left wing will grow stronger at the expense of the "moderates". This represents a mortal danger both for the regime and for Khatami who is really just the left face of the regime.
The present unstable equilibrium in Iran cannot last. The hopes aroused by Khatami and the reformers have been dashed, and the disappointment of the masses is turning to anger. The student demonstrations, as always, are a faithful barometer of the mood of discontent that is building up within society for a long time and is now reaching a critical point.
Dr. Pakinam el-Shakarwy, a political professor at Cairo University and expert on Iran, said the protests show how popular President Khatami is among Iran's youth.
"They are kind of an indicator of the power of the president, Khatami. That his main power are on the streets and with the movement, and that's why, I think, it's kind of an endorsement to President Khatami more than being a threat to the regime. Because, I think, if you are going to preview all of the tensions between the two camps, the moderates and the conservatives, you are going to find that both of them are using their powers to prove and to endorse the situation against each other," she said.
This version of events is quite superficial. What is true is that the bourgeois reformists would like to lean on the students to put pressure on the regime. What they desire is not radical change but only concessions and compromises that would serve their own interests. What they want is not revolution but reforms from above in order to prevent revolution from below.
The great French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out long ago that the most dangerous moment for an autocratic regime was when it began to loosen the screws of repression. The movement towards reform has aroused the hopes and increased the aspirations of the Iranian people, without satisfying them. The result is an enormous growth of anger, bitterness and frustration that is being reflected in the student youth but which tomorrow will be reflected in a colossal movement of the masses.
The moderates are playing with the students. They would like them to protest, but not too much, in order that control of the streets should not slip from their trembling hands. They will use the students and then cast them of like a dirty dishrag when they have obtained the concessions they desire.
Evidently, they already consider that the student movement has "gone far enough". They are signalling the students to calm things down. Student leaders have been quoted as saying the supreme leader's decision to call for a review of Aghajari's death sentence amounts to victory. Consequently, they say, they plan to call off their protests with classes to resume as early as Tuesday. But this is only a temporary truce in the war. Nothing has been resolved and nothing can be resolved unless the power of the reactionary mullahs is decisively broken.
After more than twenty years under a corrupt and reactionary government, the people of Iran are in no mood for compromise. During the demonstrations last week the youth of Iran expressed its willingness to struggle for its freedom. One student leader, said to applause:
"You can cut our tongues ... you can take us to jail as you have jailed many other students and scholars, but you can't capture our hearts, you can't prevent freedom of expression and thoughts."
Here is the real voice of the revolutionary youth of Iran! Not the spineless parliamentary trickery of the liberals, not the endless search for shabby compromises and unprincipled deals but a burning desire to fight for freedom. This is the real face of the people of Iran, a people tired of oppression and willing to fight to break their chains. What is needed is not more deals and compromises but an all-out struggle for the programme of revolutionary democracy. But this is only possible if it is fought for by the people - the peasants, artisans, the urban poor, the bazaris, students, the women and the oppressed nationalities - with the working class at its head. Not an Islamic Republic but a Workers and Peasants Republic of Iran - that is our goal! It can only be achieved by taking the movement out of the hands of the bourgeois liberals.
Lenin long ago explained that there are four conditions for revolution. The first condition was that the ruling class should be divided and unable to rule in the same way as the past. This condition clearly exists in Iran. The second condition is that the middle layers of society should be vacillating between revolution and counter-revolution. In the case of Iran the middle layers - the peasants, the bazaris, the intellectuals and professional people are completely alienated from the regime. The third condition is that the working class should be prepared to fight. Reports of a growing strike movement indicate that this condition is also maturing.
The fourth point is the existence of a revolutionary party and the leadership. The weakness of the Iranian revolution at this stage is the weakness of the leadership. If a genuine Leninist party existed in Iran, the victory of the revolution would be assured. Unfortunately, such a party does not yet exist, or exists only in a very embryonic form. However, in the heat of the revolutionary struggle the students and the workers will learn quickly. The best of them will come to understand the need for a consistent revolutionary policy. Such a policy can only be provided by Marxism.
Along the path of Khatami and the "moderates" nothing can be achieved. The students and workers of Iran must place absolutely no confidence in these people whose only trade is betrayal. They trade in principles the same way they trade in soap or shirts. They are completely subservient to world imperialism. The victory of the Iranian bourgeoisie would therefore signify only the substitution of one form of slavery for another. The masses must have faith only in their own movement, and turn their backs on the manoeuvres and intrigues on the top.
The mass movement must begin to organize itself from the bottom up, through the formation of revolutionary committees in every factory, school, university campus and local area. By linking the committees up on a local, district and national basis, the ground would be prepared for a serious advance of the revolution of the masses -in the shape of an all-Iranian political general strike - the only way to sweep aside the reactionaries and prepare the way for a workers and peasants government in Iran. This is the only road to victory.